Tucson offers the largest concentration of Mexican eateries in the United States crammed into an area dubbed “the country’s best 23 miles (37 km) of Mexican food.” Putting on our stretchiest pants, PAXnewsWest.com dove into the Tucson food scene with Visit Tucson to sample as much as we could in 24 hours. A tour is the best way for visitors to maximize the time (and calories) invested; we rode with Gray Line Tours Arizona on their Best of the Barrio tour, offering five stops in Southern Tucson.
At La Estrella Bakery, we sampled hand-made tortillas, doughnuts and empanadas and got a peek into the kitchen, where master bread makers were twisting and flipping dough into sweet crescent rolls. Just down the street, we stopped into El Merendero for a sit-down mini-meal featuring Sonoran specialities like chicharrones de camaron (fried shrimp balls) and toritos (caribe chilies stuffed with shrimp and cheese, then wrapped in bacon).
Then it was on to El Guero Canelo for a Sonoran hot dog, wrapped in bacon and served in a sweet, soft bun topped with tomatoes, beans, grilled onions, mustard, mayo and jalapeno sauce. Sitting in the ultra-casual picnic-style seating area, we washed it all down with glass bottles of Mexican coke, made from cane sugar rather than the high-fructose corn syrup used in the American version.
Ready for dessert, we headed to Oasis Fruit Cones, where the raspados – a Mexican take on the snow cone – have been named best in Tucson. Combining vanilla ice cream, simple syrup, fresh fruit and shaved ice, these icy treats pack a flavour punch. Owner Julie Carrizosa told PAXnewsWest.com that Oasis, which has three locations in Tucson, closes from late November to early February to ensure they never work with sub-par produce.
By now completely stuffed, we were glad to know our last stop didn’t involve much eating. We headed to the USDA-certified Carlotta’s Kitchen for a behind-the-scenes peek at how tamales are made. Donning aprons, hairnets and gloves to comply with USDA regulations, we tried our hands at making the corn-husk-wrapped specialty with help from the pros, and were rewarded with a snack of mini-chimichangas stuffed with peppers and cheese.
That marked the end of the Gray Line tour, but Visit Tucson had two stops left to showcase. First up was Hamilton Distillers, makers of Whiskey del Bac – an award-winning trio of whiskeys distilled in the Scottish style, with an important exception: Rather than peat, founder Stephen Paul uses local mesquite wood to malt the barley, giving the spirits a uniquely southwest flavour. One of only a handful of distilleries in the country that malts its own barley and uses no bulk-sourced spirits, Hamilton Distilleries offers a glimpse into the whole process of whiskey creation through tours offered every Saturday (tastings included; reservations required). Those wanting to get a more hands-on experience should check the Hamilton Distilleries website and Facebook page for opportunities to participate in a community bottling session, where a half-day shift earns you lunch and a bottle of whiskey to take home.
We ended the day at Café Poca Cosa, a Tucson favourite, where chef and owner Suzana Davila changes her menus twice – or more – per day, based on the ingredients she finds freshest and most appealing. The chalkboard menu features items deeply rooted in Davila’s native Mexico served in an upscale style to match the high-end contemporary feel of the dining room. Wise diners choose the plato Poca Cosa, a chef’s choice sampler plate of three dishes. After a day of eating, the giant piece of chocolate-chili cake that arrived at the end of the meal was almost too much to take, but we managed to take a bite. The verdict? Delicious. And thank goodness for stretchy pants.
Learn more about foodie travel in Tucson at visittucson.org/things-to-do/restaurants/23-miles-mexican-food.